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Keywords:

  • Generic language;
  • Concepts;
  • Truth conditions;
  • Prevalence implications;
  • Quantifiers;
  • Semantics

Abstract

Generic statements (e.g., “Birds lay eggs”) express generalizations about categories. In this paper, we hypothesized that there is a paradoxical asymmetry at the core of generic meaning, such that these sentences have extremely strong implications but require little evidence to be judged true. Four experiments confirmed the hypothesized asymmetry: Participants interpreted novel generics such as “Lorches have purple feathers” as referring to nearly all lorches, but they judged the same novel generics to be true given a wide range of prevalence levels (e.g., even when only 10% or 30% of lorches had purple feathers). A second hypothesis, also confirmed by the results, was that novel generic sentences about dangerous or distinctive properties would be more acceptable than generic sentences that were similar but did not have these connotations. In addition to clarifying important aspects of generics’ meaning, these findings are applicable to a range of real-world processes such as stereotyping and political discourse.